Twenty-five years ago, when I was a cub editorial assistant at Spy magazine, I was obsessed with the Metropolitan Diary feature that ran every Wednesday in the New York Times. (It now runs in the Times on Mondays.) Obsessed in a love-hate way. Metropolitan Diary was, and is, an assemblage of reader-submitted vignettes about life in the big city, and I liked its fundamentally upbeat tenor—a welcome respite from the grimmer stuff in the hard-news sections of the paper. It helped, too, that in those days, the Times sent a bottle of Champagne to every reader whose submission was printed; a charming touch.
Yet I was also driven mad by Metropolitan Diary’s sameyness: how, the more you read the section, the more you realized that the contents of one Diary were nearly identical to that of all the others, with only minor details changing from week to week. I eventually concluded that all printed Metropolitan Diary submissions fell into one of six categories:
1. Codgerly reminiscences of New York City as it was
2. The awful poetry of the bourgeoisie
3. Stories in which New Yorkers are nicer than expected
4. Stories involving a “well-dressed woman” or a “woman of a certain age”
5. The awkward and/or misspelled signage of immigrant shopkeepers
6. Out of the mouths of precocious New York babes (amusing kid stories)
Metropolitan Diary was so formulaic that I thought it would be funny if I wrote a total of 36 Metropolitan Diary submissions—six in each category—and had other members of the Spy staff rewrite these submissions in their own hand, and then mail them to the Times over a three-day period, thereby flooding the submission pool. My goal: for the Times to run a Metropolitan Diary written entirely by me, though the paper would be none the wiser.
My bosses, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, signed off on the idea, and I executed it as described above. I remember that I had Martin Kihn, a young fact-checker at the magazine and now a successful writer whose book House of Lies is the basis for the Showtime TV series of the same title, submit under his name a story about how he, a putatively old man, was one of the few New Yorkers who could remember when figgy pudding was a readily available foodstuff, and not just a line in the song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I remember that I had my friend Henry Alford submit an “awful” poem because he and I were mutually fascinated by a poem that had run in Metropolitan Diary by an older gent who became melancholy drinking coffee from a ceramic mug that had been made in grade school by one of his now-grown children. The poet referred to the vessel as his “morning mug of memories.”
I further remember that I had a sunny colleague named Gina Duclayan submit a story in which she, a newcomer to the city, was riding on the subway when her train screeched to a halt between stations. The wait in the dark seemed interminable until Gina and the friend she was with (in my story) started singing, tentatively at first, their own rendition of Bobby McFerrin’s then-current song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Slowly, the hardened faces of exasperated commuters softened, until, by the time the song neared its end, just about everyone in Gina’s subway car was singing along boisterously. But then! The train suddenly lurched forward and resumed its trip—at which point all the commuters resumed poker faces, as if nothing had happened.
I was naïve in thinking that my rig-the-Diary scheme would work. The Times, it turns out, receives hundreds and sometimes even thousands of submissions to Metropolitan Diary each week; my 36 submissions were a mere drop in the bucket.
I managed to get precisely one of my submissions printed, on December 13, 1989, as sent in by my colleague Monica Mahoney, now a clothing designer. It was one of those awkward-signage bits:
“Hand-printed sign, spotted by Monica Mahoney in the window of a deli on upper Broadway: WE HAVE CROISSANTS, PASTA SALAD, BRAN MUFFINS, EVERY KIND OF YUPPIE FOOD—YOU NAME IT!”
In the years since, I have become an occasional contributor to the Times, legitimately rather than under mischievous pretenses, and Henry has become a regular contributor to the paper’s Styles section. It’s a better way to get published, if less subversive.
One last thing: My failed scheme’s finest moment, in my opinion, did not involve my words’ being published. A few days after she submitted her story about singing in the subway car, Gina received a lovely personal note from Ron Alexander, the gentlemanly fellow at the Times who edited Metropolitan Diary. He welcomed Gina to New York and told her he was enchanted by her story—but that it couldn’t run, alas, on the grounds that it was too similar to Diary pieces that had already been published.